Three remarkable new albums feature choral music spanning more than a millennium, including works by the world’s earliest known female composer.
Cappella Romana: Hymns of Kassianí
Fresh from their Billboard-charting The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, the choir Cappella Romana has undertaken to record all the known music of the ninth-century composer Kassianí. This aristocrat-turned-abbess, the earliest known female composer in human history, is best known to Orthodox churchgoers today for one particular hymn, but she wrote a good deal of liturgical music, as well as secular compositions. The choir, which specializes in medieval Byzantine chant and other early music, now introduces this trailblazing artist to a wide modern public with its first recording of Kassianí’s works, Hymns of Kassianí.
From what is known, it seems Kassianí had an interesting life. Forty-nine hymns attributed to her are extant, and she is known as Kassianí the Hymnographer in the Orthodox church. Born between 805 and 810, she was purported to be beautiful, and appeared on display, as it were, in a “bride show” for the young emperor Theophilos. The story goes that he rejected her because she outsmarted him: When he commented that it was through a woman (Eve) that the baser things came, she replied that it was also through a woman (Mary) that the better things emerged.
So instead of becoming a royal, she became a nun, and in 843 founded an abbey outside Constantinople where she could pursue her scholarship, write secular poetry, and compose hymns. According to the liner notes by Cappella Romana’s founder and music director Alexander Lingas, “Scholars now view Kassía, as she probably called herself, as the outstanding figure among the small group of women known to have written texts and music for Byzantine public worship.” Unlike the better-known 12-century German abbess Hildegard von Bingen, “Kassía succeeded in having her hymns circulate widely and then be incorporated selectively into official service books.”
Today Kassianí is venerated in Orthodox churches as a saint. Even so, her legacy was suppressed, with some of her work reattributed to men or replaced in liturgical books by hymns written by men. Fortunately, the historical record allows scholars to compile and notate her oeuvre so that Cappella Romana can bring her hymns to us in this way.
Unlike Gregorian chant, these plainchant melodies are shared by male and female voices, singing together or separately. This allows for the depiction of multiple points of view, and breaks up the monotony while evoking the atmosphere of devotion and piety this music was meant to heighten and encourage. Especially when the men and women sing together, with the flowing melodies accompanied by a droning single note, it has a singularly powerful effect. If you turn it up and close your eyes you feel like you’re in a vast church or cathedral in the presence of something greater than the sum of the individual human voices surrounding you.
Many challenges face artists trying to recreate any music this old. Inauthenticities can multiply with changes in notation over the centuries and with layers of not always reliable scholarship pushing the music forward into the relentless future. In this case, as with the choir’s earlier The Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia, expansive liner notes detail the scholarship that went into the scores and the recording. Merely skimming them will convince you you’re in meticulous, deeply knowledgeable hands. Or read them thoroughly for a deep dive into the history of this music – it’s well worth it.
But above all, sit back and listen, and let Cappella Romana’s superb singers transport you back to the Byzantine Empire.
New York Polyphony: And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide
Zooming six centuries forward, New York Polyphony offers a discerning selection of liturgical choral music from 15th- and 16th-century Europe, plus a couple of more modern pieces, on its new disc And the Sun Darkened: Music for Passiontide. It’s perhaps a little ironic, as we celebrate Women’s History Month, that a mixed chorus releases music by a woman composer born more than 12 centuries ago, while a four-man group gives us an album of music by male composers writing at a much later time when female composers were, let’s just say, very difficult to find.
Just in time for Easter, New York Polyphony’s latest offering eases us into the devotional spirit with motets by the well-known Josquin Desprez and by his contemporary, Loyset Compère. Then it launches into a long modern piece in a similar style, written for the group by Andrew Smith. “Salme 55” is an adaptation of music Smith wrote for a theatrical work about the groundbreaking Italian madrigalist Carlo Gesualdo (1566-1613) which interpolates motets by that composer.
The other non-ancient selection on the disc is also a psalm setting, this one by the late Estonian composer Cyrillus Kreek. You won’t mistake this piece for Renaissance music, but its stark sound and modal harmonies click firmly into the spirit.
The lush harmonies of Adrian Willaert’s 1532 motet “Pater noster – Ave Maria” sound especially sublime in this pristine recording. New York Polyphony have never sounded better here, or on the album’s centerpiece, a cycle of nine motets by Compère, Officium de Cruce. Many of these correspond to the Hours of the Cross and are linked to scenes from the Passion as well. I had never heard these miniature masterpieces of the form. In New York Polyphony’s performance they have an ethereal weightlessness that’s – well – divine.
The album’s closing piece, “O salutaris hostia” by Pierre de la Rue, offers an easy sentiment to understand, whether or not you believe in a deity: “Our foes press hard on every side; Thine aid supply; Thy strength bestow.” So many foes. Fortunately, also so much great music, available to us all on recordings like this.
And the Sun Darkened is available now.
The Crossing: Rising with the Crossing
Arriving in our own century, we come to this latest release from the fecund Philadelphia choir The Crossing, led by Donald Nally. The mostly modern pieces on Rising with the Crossing were recorded live in concert over the past few years, and they have a wonderful melding of live energy and precision.
The pieces speak directly to the modern soul, beginning with David Lang’s incantatory “protect yourself from infection,” a setting of text from a U.S. government advisory from 1918 concerning the deadly influenza pandemic we’ve read so much about in the context of COVID-19. Unison choral chants echo plaintive solo voices, and had it been recorded with a tremendous amount of reverb, it might have put me in mind of Kassianí. “Beware of those who are coughing or sneezing…Avoid crowded streetcars…If you become ill don’t try to keep on with your work.” If only everyone had had the option to follow all this sage advice during 2020.
The International Contemporary Ensemble accompanies the choir on two movements from another work by Lang, “the national anthems,” a collage of lines from the world’s patriotic hymns. Part IV is notable for a thematic duality that pits sections of the choir against one another and seems to carry us off in two suggestive directions at once.
By contrast, there’s a childlike charm and sadness to Joby Talbot’s “Lost Forever,” performed beautifully by the female voices, and a calm sweetness to Ted Hearne’s “What it might say,” which takes the perspective of an actual baby.
The choir also brings off well the reedy modernism of Paul Fowler’s springtime picture “First Pink,” a setting of lines by contemporary poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, and of Alex Berko’s setting of a stark ode to Abraham Lincoln.
But the album’s most remarkable music is at the end. Supremely lovely is the marvelous “Earth Teach Me Quiet” by the contemporary Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. In this quiet stunner, transportive harmonies waft through the air, like clouds peacefully circling instead of drifting by. And “Horo horo hata hata,” by Santa Ratniece with words from Ainu prayers, casts its spell with eerie aerial gestures, hisses, whistles, glissandos, chatterings, and hollow midrange calls that seem to arise from some mysterious echoey place beneath the surface of the earth.
Remarkably for this contemporary-music ensemble, the album also includes two movements from Membra Jesu nostri by Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707). The singers, especially the soloists, bring a refreshingly colorful timbral variety that such ancient music often lacks in the more staid, almost obsessively respectful performances of today. They’re accompanied adroitly by the early music ensemble Quicksilver in a revealing performance that brings us full circle, if not back to Kassianí’s ninth-century abbey, then to a time when stories had to be told by real human voices in person.